Former rector reflects on 12 years with St. Francis


METUCHEN – After 12 years as the rector of St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral, Monsignor Richard A. Behl said that among the “many wonderful memories” he has of the Catholic parish, the one thing he’ll miss the most is the people.

“It really moved me, seeing the kids cry and the number of adults, even the ones who I didn’t know their names, hug me and cry,” said Monsignor Behl on saying goodbye to the parishioners of St. Francis. “I was really moved by that.”

Monsignor Behl’s last day as rector at St. Francis was Oct. 29, as he presided over morning Masses. The Diocese of Metuchen transferred the monsignor, who was St. Francis’ second rector, to St. Thomas the Apostle in Old Bridge to serve as its rector, due to the retirement of Monsignor John B. Szymanski, who has been at St. Thomas for 40 years.

“He’s a beloved man … how do you replace someone who has been with St. Thomas, which is the largest church in the [Metuchen] diocese, for 40 years?” said Monsignor Behl. “The church has 500 more families than St. Francis. I guess it was God’s plan for me.”

Monsignor Michael Alliegro has been appointed as Monsignor Behl’s successor at St. Francis.

Monsignor Behl said a lot has happened since he first arrived at St. Francis 12 years ago.

“Challenges involved finding ways to provide the space for the 3,900 families in the St. Francis congregation,” he said. “We needed a tremendous amount of space for get-togethers, which is still ongoing.”

Approximately $5 million to $6 million was put into various projects during Monsignor Behl’s tenure, from fixing leaks in the buildings, adding additional parking spaces for the parish’s growing congregation, and providing computers for the school library, to renovating the CYO gymnasium and the bishop’s offices, which are on the upper floor of the CYO building, and building a breezeway connecting the St. Francis Cathedral School to the cathedral.

“A lot of physical work and reconfiguration was done within the parish and outside the parish,” he said.

Monsignor Behl said the parish provides all types of different programs to accommodate what the people want.

“No matter if the parish is small or huge, people need a shepherd,” said Monsignor Behl. “They need time for counseling – premarital and pro-marital, teenagers need questions answered on all segments …”

He said that one of his last projects was getting air conditioners into the school. “We had 90 to 100 kids attend summer

camp from late June to mid-

August, and it was so hot,” he

said. “The priority of air

conditioners went from

Number 3 to Number 1.”

Monsignor Behl currently

serves as the

diocesan director of the

Office of Missions and as

chairman of the Commission

for Pro-Life Action. He was appointed the first vicar for charities and social ministry and chairman of the board of trustees for Catholic Charities when the Diocese of Metuchen was newly formed. He has also served on the Diocesan Pastoral Council, Presbyteral Council, and the Seminary and Advisory Board to the New Jersey Catholic Conference.

In 2002, he was named to the board of trustees of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States.

According to the St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral Web site, the parish was not always a cathedral nor was it always known as St. Francis Parish. In the mid- 1800s it was a mission church dedicated to St. Joseph. Since then, two other churches have been erected.

St. Francis Cathedral is the third church.

The first church frame, which was dedicated in 1871, seated 225 people. On Jan. 26, 1878, the church was officially incorporated as St. Francis Parish and served until Dec. 21, 1903; however, that same year, a fire destroyed the church, but did not affect the rectory.

The second wooden church was dedicated in December 1904 and seated 324 people. In 1920, Columbia Hall, a center for parish activities, was built.

By 1960, St. Francis Parish had grown to more than 2,000 families. However, by that time, Columbia Hall had burned down.

Plans to build a larger stone church, rectory, new gymnasium and social center were in the works.

In June 1961, the new rectory was completed and the groundbreaking ceremony for the church took place on July 24, 1961. The CYO hall was completed in December 1961.

The newly built church with a Gothic structure was made with what was considered the finest materials – limestone with marble wainscoting walls, solid oak woodwork, terrazzo floors, and marble imported from Italy – and now seated 1,000 people. On May 19, 1963, the church was dedicated and the cornerstone was blessed.

Over the main altar, a near-life-size bronze crucifix was topped by an exquisite Gothic baldacchino, and a rose window was placed at the rear of the church.

“The great ‘rose window’ of the Cathedral of Metuchen reminds us that Jesus stands in the center of all creation,” the late Monsignor Dominic Turtora, who became the first rector of the cathedral of the Metuchen diocese, once said.

On Nov. 19, 1981, Pope John Paul II established the Diocese of Metuchen, which serves Catholics in Middlesex, Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren counties, and named Auxiliary Bishop Theodore McCarrick of New York as its first bishop.

Monsignor Dominic Turtora became the first rector of the cathedral of the Metuchen Diocese. In June 1986, Bishop McCarrick was transferred to the Archdiocese of Newark, and Bishop Edward Hughes of Philadelphia was installed on Feb. 5, 1987, as the second bishop of the Metuchen Diocese.

When Bishop Hughes retired in 1997, Bishop Vincent De Paul Breen of Brooklyn, N.Y., was appointed as the third bishop of Metuchen; however, due to his failing health, Bishop Breen retired in September 2001.

Bishop John M. Smith was appointed apostolic administrator of the diocese, and in January 2002, Bishop Paul Gregory Bootkoski was appointed the fourth bishop of Metuchen.

Monsignor Behl said a challenge is emphasizing the spiritual knowledge of faith, a common challenge among priests.

“We try to do what we can for religious education,” he said. “I firmly believe that every school seems to be a faith-filled school entity, and I really believe that the kids at St. Francis are friendly. They really stand out … they are genuinely friendly, happy and energetic in school. Principal Barbara Stevens has been outstanding.

“The staff works on the community and genuinely are concerned about each other,” he said. “They are not selfish, and very competent.”

Monsignor Behl said that during his tenure, he has seen a change in the St. Francis congregation, as the areas of Metuchen and Edison have been changing.

“We have seen increases in Filipinos, Asian Indians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians, and Kenyans in our congregation,” he said. “It’s a good reminder that Christ’s Church is global.”

The parish holds a total of five Masses – 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturdays, and 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.

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